Director: Nitin Kakkar
Writers: Sharib Hashmi and Nitin Kakkar
Cinematographers: Subranshu Das and Madhav Salunkhe
Editor: Shachindra Vats
Streaming on: Sony Liv
Director Nitin Kakkar reinvigorated the small-film-with-a-big-heart genre in 2012 with Filmistaan; it had a theatrical release in 2014. Kakkar didn’t return till 2018 – in a different avatar – with three glossy commercial projects (Mitron, Notebook, Jawaani Jaaneman) in consecutive years. I’ve always wondered what triggered this abrupt mainstream makeover. Ram Singh Charlie is the missing link in the story of its storyteller. Completed in 2016, this was to be Filmistaan’s spiritual successor. Distribution problems meant that we’re watching it almost half a decade later, but there’s little doubt about its role in the evolution of its maker. In fact, the premise of the film is reflective of a career in transition. The tale – of a passionate circus artist adapting to the capitalism of life after the demise of the circus – feels uncannily personal, and provides a snapshot of those empty years.
The context helps, because on its own Ram Singh Charlie is a noble but simplistic movie. It opens with a young man preparing for his stage show. His voiceover is addressed to his father, Ram Singh Charlie, whose flashback journey forms the core of the film. Like a light breeze flipping the pages of a faded calendar, Ram Singh’s story switches from one familiar chapter to another: Jango Circus, big happy family of freaks, circus shuts, move to Calcutta, odd jobs, chawl life, rickshaw puller, comeback, last hurrah? Every trope in the underdog book is milked – sad violins, a generous Muslim friend named Shah Jahan, arrogant employers, untimely tragedies. The artist reaches his soul-selling limit when he is hired to play cricket in a heavy chicken costume for a stadium of kids. His spark is reignited during a Father’s Day performance with his son. The film is so painfully sincere that, at times, it’s hard to tell its sweat from tears.
On the other hand, the black and white strokes feel fitting for a film whose protagonist is a Charlie Chaplin impersonator. Kumud Mishra’s face has that monochromatic mileage of a mime: youthful in one segment, jaded in another. His expressions are so sharp that it always seems like he’s wearing an invisible layer of face paint. Perhaps his theatre background lends a lived-in twang to the way his film characters perceive – and romanticize – the antiquity of art. Two other roles come to mind. There’s Khatana bhai and his monologue about pain inspiring art in Rockstar. There’s also The Listener, a short film that features Mishra as a unique artist who is paid by strangers to listen to their problems. His turn as Ram Singh Charlie allows the film the luxury of an anticlimax: an ending that frames fatherhood as an unsung art that launches a million artists. It’s rushed but startling, a reality check for arcs that spotlight heroes as people in control of their fate.
There’s not much else remarkable about Ram Singh Charlie, but it does the unremarkable things well. I like the use of mirrors to depict Charlie’s duality – as a man torn between suppressing the role of a performer and performing the role of a survivor. Charlie’s idea of a comeback is in sync with his surroundings. It’s apt that much of his story unfurls in Calcutta, a city so replete with artistic culture that no creative soul can stay dormant for long. It doesn’t feel far-fetched when unlikely investors appear out of nowhere. The fleeting device of the son as the narrator also makes sense; it tilt-shifts the film’s perspective from the story of a struggling artist to the origin story of a next-gen artist.
To the makers, one would imagine Ram Singh Charlie is like a Facebook memory (“on this day 8 years ago”), a nostalgic little throwback to the hope and idealism of a promising debut. Cameos by the Filmistaan actors, Sharib Hashmi (also the co-writer) and Inaamulhaq, further cement this vibe. But the film works best when its dated language acquires the innocence of a memory for the viewer too. You stop, you open the album, you smile at the circus, you return to the circus of life. After all, it’s not the art that changed; it’s the people who did.